Using Wordle to Understand the Power of Written Words

Now that I am getting settled in the new school year and my new role, I now work half my time with students and half my time with teachers, I am getting back into being active in my blog. While I have be planning a big reintroduction, I decided this weekend that reintroduction was delaying several good ideas. Therefore, it will have to wait. I’ll work on that in the near future because I am sure it is eating at you.

I want to share my thoughts on a conversation in which I participated last toward the end of last week on Twitter. Stephanie Sandifer inquired via Twitter if anyone had done a Wordle Tag Cloud on the nomination acceptance speeches by John McCain and Barack Obama. Following the posting of these clouds several of us noted the differences in those tag clouds. As someone with an interest in politics dating back to elementary school, I am familiar with the close detail that speech writers place in both the words used and the repetition of those words. This conversation then led to a discussion of how these tactics could be used in education.

Political speech writers always kept close watch to the language used by politicians. Since the emergence of the twenty-four hour news cycle and more news channels than news papers the sound bite has become even more conscious. Now, with Youtube and various Social Networking people seem to again pay close attention to all of the words spoken not just the sound bite. If you look at the Tag Clouds of past presidential speeches you can see an interesting, but not surprising, pattern. Little policy words and more rhetorical or general words.

Presidential nomination speeches:
Republicans:
McCain
GW Bush
Dole
Reagan 1980
Eisenhower

Democrats:
Obama
Kerry
Gore
Clinton
Carter
Kennedy

Past speeches

The Twitter conversation I was involved in with Stephanie, Scott Floyd, and others turned to educational uses of this application. We spoke of how students could create a word cloud of their papers or speeches to see the frequency of words. How would this awareness change the way students write? Would it change anything at all?

Some examples of lesson ideas:

Speech class and Oral presentations: Assign a Tag Cloud and require students to write their speeches conscious of the Tag Cloud. Does the tag cloud represent the intended topic? You could assign specific words that should be the largest words in that tag cloud. After listening to the speech have the audience identify those words they believe to be the most frequently used. Following the listing of these five to ten words show the tag cloud and see if the lists match up.

Written Reports: This could be for an English class, a History class, or any course requiring a written paper. Create a tag cloud and see which themes dominate the tag cloud. Similar to the oral presentation, does the tag cloud represent the writers intended purpose. Assign a topic and sub-points and require students to structure the paper so that those sub-points reach that status of being top five in the tag cloud. Additionaly, assess the paper based on how many words of substance populate the top tags in the tag cloud.

Current events: A final idea comes from news articles. Students can search for a news article on a given topic for Science, Social Studies, etc. and create a tag cloud for that article. Analysis of the article can be directed from the tag cloud in addition to or in substitute for the actual article.

We all sould be aware of the words we use when trying to engage and inform an audience. Most people are aware that people have different styles in which they learn. Most of our students are visual learners. By making use of tools such as Wordle, we can visually see what our ears perceive.

Enjoy,

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